Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31: Some Fundamental Convictions, Part 5: Naming The Sins

Continuing Some Fundamental Convictions, we come to a discussion of the act of confession itself:

We therefore understand why, from the earliest Christian times, in line with the apostles and with Christ, the church has included in the sacramental sign of penance the confession of sins. This latter takes on such importance that for centuries the usual name of the sacrament has been and still is that of confession.

Perhaps this is not necessarily a good thing. But it is the aspect of the sacrament and rite that gains the most attention from clergy and penitents.

However, if we’re talking in terms of idiom, it’s not unique. We refer to cars as “wheels,” planes as “wings,” pianos as “keys,” etc.. In context, it communicates. But it doesn’t tell the whole tale.

The confession of sins is required, first of all, because the sinner must be known by the person who in the sacrament exercises the role of judge. He has to evaluate both the seriousness of the sins and the repentance of the penitent; he also exercises the role of the healer and must acquaint himself with the condition of the sick person in order to treat and heal (her or) him.

The concerns I see with too much emphasis on information:

  • Scrupulous penitents can end up missing the ideals of reform in the future because the personal emphasis is on the past.
  • Confessors can indulge too much in a curiosity about particular sins and persons rather than their primary role.
  • Missing the fact that Christ is the first, most effective, and primary actor–as Healer, Judge, Counsellor.

But the individual confession also has the value of a sign: a sign of the meeting of the sinner with the mediation of the church in the person of the minister, a sign of the person’s revealing of self as a sinner in the sight of God and the church, of facing (their) own sinful condition in the eyes of God. The confession of sins therefore cannot be reduced to a mere attempt at psychological self-liberation even though it corresponds to that legitimate and natural need, inherent in the human heart, to open oneself to another.

Which is part of the understanding of admitting wrongs in 12 Step efforts.

Speaking of rite:

It is a liturgical act, solemn in its dramatic nature, yet humble and sober in the grandeur of its meaning. It is the act of the prodigal son who returns to his Father and is welcomed by him with the kiss of peace.

If this is true, then more attention can be given to the very act of coming to the sacrament. The Father of Luke 15 was unconcerned with the particulars of the son’s transgressions–he knew them quite well. Over the years, I’ve heard of the difficulty of women (in particular) with male confessors who seem to take too much interest in the particulars of sin. The fact is: God knows the nature of the sin well enough. The confessor would not seem to be in need of details as much as being the tangible representative of the Lord.

It is an act of honesty and courage. It is an act of entrusting oneself, beyond sin, to the mercy that forgives. (I had occasion to speak of these fundamental aspects of penance at the general audiences of May 19, 1982: Insegnamenti V, 2 (1982), 1758ff; February 28, 1979: Insegnamenti II (1979), 475-478; March 21, 1984: Insegnamenti VII, 1 (1984) 720-722. See also the norms of the Code of Canon Law concerning the place for administering the sacrament and concerning confessionals (Canon 964, 2-3)) Thus we understand why the confession of sins must ordinarily be individual not collective, just as sin is a deeply personal matter.

This is the most important aspect, I think:

But at the same time this confession in a way forces sin out of the secret of the heart and thus out of the area of pure individuality, emphasizing its social character as well, for through the minister of penance it is the ecclesial community, which has been wounded by sin, that welcomes anew the repentant and forgiven sinner.

Sin indeed festers and grows as long as it does not come to light. If we are talking of the healing value of the sacrament, this cannot be denied.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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